Theatre students exhibit at Prague Quadrennial

Students in York’s theatre program had a chance to show off their production designs to professionals from around the world last month at the 11th Prague Quadrennial.

The international exhibition of set design and theatre architecture has been taking place in the Czech Republic since 1967 and this year featured exhibitions from theatre professionals from 60 countries. “The Prague Quadrennial is the biggest and most important exhibition of theatre design in the world,” says York theatre Professor Teresa Przybylski, who gave a workshop there.

Eight students in Przybylski’s fourth-year set design course – Matt Armour, Michael Barrs, James Bolton, Michael Cuttini , Kate Horrill, Cristina Reale, Jessica Sisson and Joanna Yu – showed a project they created for the festival’s juried Tower of Babel exhibition. The theme was based on the Biblical story in which God punishes ambitious humans for building a tower to reach the sky by destroying the tower and dividing humans into groups who speak different languages. The York theatre students submitted a design thematically linked to this story but incorporating current environmental issues and were invited to participate in the exhibition based on this entry.

Left: The Tower of Babel by York set design students

Their project consists of open boxes stacked to create a tower. Each box contains individual students’ artistic interpretations. The tower can be seen to represent progress that leads to destruction. In our society, “we are progressing, but the progress is dramatically working against us,” suggests Przybylski.

Other York theatre students’ designs were also shown at the quadrennial as part of the Canadian Students Exhibition. In this one, students revealed the design preparations for a theatre production, including planning spreadsheets for developing theatre sets; sketches of costumes; scale models illuminated by lighting design students; and photos of preparations for past theatre productions staged at the University.

Few of the students whose work was featured at the festival were able to travel to Prague. But a group of about 30 other York theatre students did attend the event while in Europe as part of a York summer course on Western culture and architecture from a design perspective led by theatre Professors Peter McKinnon and Elizabeth Asselstine. It turned out to be a "fabulous experience" for the students, said McKinnon.

The students all volunteered at the quadrennial, known this year as PQ2007. “They set up the exhibits. They ran the information and ticket booths and during the run of the exhibition, manned the workshops as well,” said Asselstine, who teaches lighting design at York.

Left: York theatre student Alan Shields helps set up exhibit at Prague Quadrennial

“They were amazing as workers in the set up and running of PQ2007," said McKinnon. "Our colleagues from around the world want Yorkies to be cloned."

The multicultural nature of the York group served them well. They were easily able to communicate with participants and networked with students from other countries. “Students can figure out their place in the food chain. In Canada, York is a leading school [in the field], but at the quadrennial, when they get in a room with thousands of others, they see there are a lot of good students out there,” said McKinnon.

At the quadrennial, York students had a chance to view exhibitions of some of the best designers in the world. They also signed up for workshops about scenography, costumes, puppetry, sound design and theatre technology at workshops given by industry professionals, including York Professors Teresa Przybylski and John Mayberry.

"It was a fabulous experience for the students to meet and talk with designers they have read about or studied in class," said McKinnon. 

Besides leading summer course students through Europe, McKinnon went to the quadrennial to launch a book he edited about French designer Jean-Guy Lecat’s theory of stage space (see More News).

After PQ2007 ended on June 24, the summer-course students split into two groups. One group, led by Asselstine and Przybylski, headed to England to take in architectural sites in Bath, Salisbury, Cambridge, London and environs. A larger group, led by McKinnon, toured mainland Europe, making sketches everywhere they went. They visited Austria for the Bregenz opera festival, where they attended a technical rehearsal of Tosca and had a behind-the-scenes tour of the colossal set, which features a stage built on the sea. Stops in Italy included Ravenna and Rome, with side trips to Florence and Pompeii and other major cultural centres.

Story by Olena Wawryshyn, York communications officer